Nelson tasks county senator with education finance reform

By Richard Lee
Texas Senate News

LARRY TAYLOR is to chair one of two newly formed workgroups set up to examine the two largest slices of the Texas budget under the direction of senate finance committee chair Jane Nelson.
The Flower Mound Republican appointed senate education committee chair Taylor to head up an education finance workgroup and told him his goal is to find a better way of paying for the state’s public-education service.
Nelson, below, who had used the first meeting of the regular session to create the two panels, charged the other with getting a handle on skyrocketing state healthcare costs.  
She told the county’s district 11 senator his goal to come up with some mouthwatering potential replacements for the state’s current education funding structure.
“The proposals must be less complicated, innovative and, most importantly, meet the needs of our students”, she said.
Taylor, below, responded that the 85th session presents a unique chance to take a look at a massive and complicated system, saying: “Now we’ve got a very large structure that was not designed to be the large structure that it is.
“It is time for the new 21st-century school finance system, that we scrape it all off and design a system that includes 21st-century weights and measures… We have things in our current system that are 30 and 40 years old.”
In the past, education finance reform attempts have come under a court order following rulings that the finance system had failed to meet its constitutional requirements. Last May, the state supreme court upheld the current finance system but told legislators they should find a better way to pay for public education.
The court’s decision said that students “deserve transformational, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid. They deserve a revamped, non-sclerotic system fit for the 21st century.”
Nelson alluded to the statement in her directive to the newly formed workgroup, saying: “We need to have a whole new method of school finance. No more Band-Aids. We need to start over.”
To head up the state healthcare workgroup, Nelson appointed senator Charles Schwertner, who chairs the senate health and human services committee.
The new group will take a look at costs in Medicaid, the teacher and state employee pension programs and health care at state correctional facilities and seek ways to contain costs starting in the 2018-19 biennium. It is charged with trying to find ways for those programs to collaborate to seek best practices and cost-savings initiatives.
Schwertner also said this is the perfect time to tackle this huge portion of the state budget, referring to “opportunities” such as “instilling personal responsibility, accountability, cost containment, as well as long-term fiscal sustainability in the largest portion of our budget”.
The Senate finance committee was due to open agency hearings beginning with the Texas education agency at 9:00am yesterday, Tuesday. The hearings, in which officials from each state agency appear to present their spending needs for the next biennium, are scheduled for each weekday until February 15.
• See Richard Lee’s round-up of last week’s legislative action in Austin on page 7.

Security keeps thousands from witnessing oath of office as pro- and anti-Trump protesters vie for recognition

By Lora-Marie Bernard – the county’s only reporter covering the presidential inauguration

HOURS BEFORE Donald Trump took his presidential oath on Friday morning, thousands of people made the walk to Washington’s Mall lined by protesters who at times concentrated on protesting each other.
While viewers at home were watching the television and live-stream broadcasts, hundreds of thousands stood in line at various entry points along the inauguration area’s perimeter where handfuls of demonstrations occurred.
Many who wanted to witness the inauguration from the Mall did not make it inside the entry points. Security guards filled tents where they inspected every bag that each person carried. At the time Trump took office, many thousands were still outside, relegated to watching a jumbo screen through chain-link fences around the perimeter of the Washington Monument.
At the monument, a few passers-by chanted protests and vulgarities to Trump but most did not approach those watching the protest. Sometimes, however, opposing groups chose
to protest each other.
At the city’s L’Enfant Plaza metro stop, hundreds were in line watching protesters hoisting 10-foot signs into the air. The discontented proclaimed the need to seek forgiveness from Jesus, resist homosexuality and stop immigration. One sign read that Christ has a pressure-cooker for Muslims, a slogan that incensed another protester. “You are crazy for saying God has a pressure cooker”, screamed Will Menta of Michigan, a protester who walked with the crowd as he handed out election reform materials. “That is no God I want anything to do with.”
The challenge began a rebuke from other protesters, who said Menta needed to repent of his sins. He said after the exchange that he had traveled to Washington to protest the election system and to promote the need for social reform.
“This country is unhappy with the choices we had”, he said, referring to Trump and his presidential rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“Most American were not happy but these were the only two choices we were given”.
Menta said he wanted to spark a conversation about adding a third major political party. He advocated for the kinds of reform made in Maine that pave the way for a more integrated party system.
The line of inauguration watchers walked past the protesters while Menta stopped to talk to them about his reform ideas. As they reached the federal aviation building, they walked on the lawn and jumped over barricades to make their way to the court of the James Forrestal building, where an organized group of Standing Rock protestors held a rally titled It Takes Roots.
Spokesperson Dallas Goldtooth rallied a small group of onlookers with a reminder that they would fight for the nation’s national resources and the end of pollution. He also advocated for closing tax loopholes that allow big business advantages.
He said the stresses of Standing Rock and the fight to stop the Dakota Access pipeline had created post traumatic stress disorders but the fight to stop national political influences will not end.
“We are on the front line of the destitute”, he said. “But we are also on the front line of solutions”.
After his rally speech, Goldtooth said the It Takes Roots effort has become a national movement and that he hopes it will build momentum when it forges a collaboration with Black Lives Matter, Food Justice and other social-
reform organizations.
“What you will see is mobility across the board to make sure they do not do further damage to our communities”, he said.
“On critical points, like community projects, we will take action”.
As the crowd moved to Independence Avenue, a calmness filled the air as thousands of people waited patiently to enter the general admission checkpoint into the Mall. Protesters were ignored by many of the people in line.
Two Long Island teens silently held a six-foot Trump flag while protesters walked past them with signs that sent a death wish to the incoming president. The teens, who gave only their first names, said they had entered a contest at the island’s Longwood high school to win a chance to attend the Inauguration and were two of 40 students chosen.
Brendan, 17, said “I have been supporting him since he first ran”, while Jared, also 17, said he had thrown his support behind Trump after Libertarian-party rival Gary Johnson dropped out of the presidential election race.
• Read about the county connection with the inauguration in more on-the-ground reports by Lora-Marie Bernard in Sunday’s edition.

Top, the US Capitol from the National Mall shortly after the inauguration; above, a DC bus is used as a barrier to prevent free public access to the Mall – Photos by Lora-Marie Bernard

By Trishna Buch

THE COUNTY’S most influential state representative is among a group of Austin politicians calling on the federal government to refund more than $2.8 billion to Texas that the state has spent on border security since 2013.
District 23 representative Wayne Faircloth was among a group accusing Washington of “failure to secure the border” at Texas taxpayers’ expense, his office said on Monday.
They published a list of the amounts making up the total, half of which they said has been spent on border security operations since January four years ago, with a quarter covering the costs of jailing “criminal aliens” and the remainder spent on healthcare, education and enforcement by alcoholic beverage commission personnel.
Faircloth declared: “Securing our nation’s borders is a federal responsibility but Washington’s failure has forced Texas to take action on our own for many years.
“As a result, Texas taxpayers are carrying a tremendous financial burden that should be shared equally by all Americans.”
As a result, he said: “Today we are asking Washington to live up to its responsibility of securing the border, and to reimburse Texas for the $2.8 billion our citizens have spent cleaning up the federal government’s mess”.
According to the group, the state and several of its local-government bodies have shared the costs of the “cleanup”, paying totals between them of $1,493,808,270 for border security operations, $728,842,659 for incarceration of criminal aliens, $416,882,000 for healthcare, $181,185,708 for education and $670,728 for TABC enforcement, a grand total of $2,821,389,365.

            Ed Sterling

Lone Star watch by Ed Sterling

TEXAS’ lawmakers gathered at the state capitol in their respective houses last week to open the 85th regular session of the state legislature, a 140-day session that will conclude on May 29.
On a vote of 150-0, the house representatives unanimously re-elected San Antonio Republican Joe Straus to a fifth term as speaker, tying a record for the most terms in the position. Meanwhile, the senate voted unanimously in favor of Kel Seliger as its speaker pro tempore.
Seliger will wield the senate gavel in the absence or temporary disability of lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, who presides over the 31-member body. Should both governor Greg Abbott and Patrick be temporarily unavailable, the Amarillo Republican will serve as governor in their absence.
Newly appointed secretary of state Rolando Pablos conducted roll calls in both the house and senate and Texas supreme court chief justice Nathan Hecht administered the oath of office to the members of each chamber.
In the coming days, while Straus and Patrick go about assigning chairs and members to committees, the lawmakers will continue filing legislation. As of opening day, Tuesday, January 10, they had filed about 1,300 bills since November 14, the first day for pre-filing of legislation.
While that figure might seem high, it is worth noting that the total number of bills, not including resolutions, filed in an average session can grow to more than 6,000.
After Straus was re-elected as speaker, he delivered a 1,500-word speech in which he said: “If you walk into a factory or a restaurant or a hospital, you will find citizens of different races, religions and political beliefs working together every day.
“And that’s what Texans should expect of us. So let’s follow their example. Let’s govern with the same sense of goodness, the same humanity and decency that we so clearly recognize in the people we represent.”
Seliger, in wrapping up his own post-election comments, called for the legislature to be “the standard of deliberation, cooperation and leadership that should define service”.
In separate speeches to the house and senate, Abbott told the legislators: “We may bring different political perspectives but we unite under one capitol dome and a cause that’s bigger than any one person or any political party.
“It’s the cause that makes Texas far more than just a state. It’s the cause that makes Texas a passion. I pray that God blesses you and guides you during the next 140 days and that God forever blesses the great state of Texas.”

State to spend within lesser means

TEXAS WILL have some $3 billion less to spend on state programs in the next two years than in the biennium ending this year, according to public-accounts comptroller Glenn Hegar.
But the Republican senator who chairs her chamber’s finance committee has pledged to set a budget within the available funds in a bid to keep the state’s economy on the up.
Hegar projected that the state will have just under $105 billion in revenue available for general-purpose spending during the 2018-19 budget cycle when he released the state’s biennial revenue estimate on January 9, the day before the legislature convened in Austin.
He said the amount is 2.7 per cent less than the amounts available for the current 2016-17 biennium.
“While our state revenues were down in 2016 and we face some difficult decisions in the coming months, Texas remains fiscally healthy”, he said.
“Despite energy-related headwinds, Texas has gained 210,000 jobs in the past year and, while our gains have not been at the same rapid rate as a few years ago, it is important to note that we have added jobs in 19 of the past 20 months.
“We have also seen signs of possible improvement in recent months, with some modest acceleration in job growth and oil prices and rig counts rising. And December brought the best monthly sales-tax revenue collections since May 2015.”
Hegar also said the state’s rainy-day-fund balance currently stands at some $10.2 billion and is expected to be $11.9 billion at the end of the 2018-19 biennium unless the legislature calls for any additional appropriations.
It seems such a move would be against the wishes of senate finance committee chair Jane Nelson.
The senator from Flower Mound responded by saying: “We will align our priorities with the revenue we have available. I am confident we will pass a budget that meets our needs and keeps the economy growing.”

Houston bucks upward sales tax trend again

CHECKS worth almost $650 million are on their way to the state’s local-government entities as sales-tax revenues continue to hold strong – but once again Houston is among the cities losing out.
Public-accounts comptroller Glenn Hegar said on January 11 that his office would send out almost 5 per cent more in local sales-tax allocations this month than in January last year.
Based on sales made in November by businesses that report tax monthly, the amount is $647.4 million, 4.9 per cent more than the office distributed one year ago.
As usual, it will go to cities, counties, transit systems and special-purpose taxing districts.
But the allocations are not uniform and do not favor southeast Texas, which has been out of line with the rest of the state in recent months.
Hegar said: “The cities of Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio continue to see significant increases in sales tax allocations. The cities of Houston and Sugar Land saw noticeable decreases.”

    Glenn Hegar

Court asked to rule now on election maps dispute

By Ian White

PLAINTIFFS challenging the Texas congressional election maps adopted in 2011 filed a joint motion on Friday to compel a federal district court to issue an urgent decision on their claims that the redistricted maps are discriminatory and violate the federal Voting Rights act and the US constitution.
If the three-judge San Antonio court does not issue its final decision by January 17, the motion said the plaintiffs will “seek relief in an appellate court” to prevent what they claim are the Republican-supported maps’ gerrymandering effects.Angle, Matt 2015
The election boundaries in current use are based on interim plans ordered by the San Antonio court in 2012 but the plaintiffs say the plans retain many of the features they claim discriminate against Hispanic and African-American voters, especially those in Corpus Christi, San Antonio, the border region, Travis County and Dallas-Fort Worth.
According to Democrat activist Matt Angle, the motion argues that continued delay not only allows continuing harm to minority voters but could prevent resolution of the case before a new census is taken.
He said: “A decision from the court is long overdue. It has been nearly six years since the complaints were initially filed and more than two years since the trial on the merits of the case concluded.”
Angle, above, is the director of Democrat-leaning political action committee Lone Star Project, which has been engaged in the Texas redistricting fight from its outset, supporting the overall efforts of the plaintiffs in the case and providing technical and financial support to one group, known as the Quesada plaintiffs.
He said: “Texas Republicans adopted maps that are off the charts in terms of racial and partisan gerrymandering. They grossly and intentionally discriminate against Hispanic and African-American Texans, which harms every Texas citizen.
“The court has a hard and complicated job sorting out how extensively Texas Republicans have violated the law but a decision is needed now so that the work to repair the damage being done to all Texas voters can begin.”